Have you ever looked at someone, admired their level of fitness, and tried to copy their routine? Or maybe there’s a celebrity trainer you admire that says if you want to be strong and toned you must spend an hour in the gym every day, eat certain foods, and take certain supplements.
Most people who search the internet for exercise and nutrition tips fall into this mindset at least once. What you want is results. And if doing what they do will make you look like them then you’ll try it.
The trouble with this is what works for one group of people may not work for another. And if you don’t truly enjoy what you’re doing, you’re not going to stick with it for a lifetime. People who hate to run train for marathons and then quit. People who enjoy high intensity training meditate for a month and then forget about it. It may take some experimenting and a certain amount of trial and error, but if you want to develop a routine that you’ll stick with, you have to do what works for you and not what works for someone else.
DISCLAIMER: Yes, it’s true that certain types of exercise are proven to burn more calories, burn more fat, and get results faster. I would encourage everyone to try these first. However, if you honestly put in the effort to try them and you feel like it’s sucking the soul out of you, then maybe it’s time to take a different approach – one that works for you.
The key to long term success when it comes to fitness is consistency, not intensity or duration. While variety is good and can keep things interesting, it is better to focus on a few exercises and max out the benefit you get from them. Keeping it simple will keep it manageable. Setting realistic expectations, not idealistic expectations, will help you be successful and maintain a healthy life balance.
When determining the fitness plan that works best for your lifestyle, start by answering these few, simple questions.
- What are your needs? If you are currently inactive, then adding both strength and cardio exercises to your week is what you need. The strength training will help improve muscle imbalances, improve your posture, and protect your joints and spine. The cardio will keep your heart strong and will help to manage issues like high blood pressure and high blood sugar. If you only do cardio or only do strength, then balance them out by adding in a few days a week of the other.
Everybody’s body is different and will respond differently to exercise and diet. It’s not a one-size fits all. Take a step back, look at yourself objectively, and try to identify what really needs to change. Here are a few questions to get you started:
- Does your job require you to be on your feet? Or do you sit at a desk all day?
- Do you have small kids at home that require your constant care and attention or are you an empty nester, responsible only for yourself?
- Do you have any chronic pain or injuries? Do you know what activities trigger a flare-up? Have you ever been prescribed exercises from a physical therapist?
- Are you strong but need to lose excess weight?
- Are you thin but weak?
It’s not just about your weaknesses, but about your strengths. The important thing is knowing your current state of health and identifying one or two things you can do now that will help to improve your future. Be proactive and perform exercises that will help you stay strong and pain free.
- How much time can you set aside?
The lifestyle factors you identified in the first question most likely dictate how much time you have to invest in yourself. Parents of young children have less flexible schedules than most empty-nesters. That’s OK. I’d rather see you challenge your body for 15 minutes a day every day of the week than for one hour once a week or not at all.Each day has 24 hours in it. If you’re a full time employee, 9-10 of those hours are spent at work and commuting to and from work. That leaves 14 hours. Getting adequate sleep each night is important, so let’s say you sleep for eight hours. You’ve now got six hours left in your day. In that six hour time slot, you have to shower, prepare meals, complete daily chores, and spend time with your family. Seems like a lot to fit in, doesn’t it? Well, it is.
My husband and I were talking about this the other day. When it comes to setting aside time to take care of yourself, it’s more about balancing priorities than balancing time. The time is there, or it can be cleared and set aside. The least you can do is set aside 30 minutes every day to take care of your own body. You only get one and you owe it to yourself to do that much.
But I realize that even this can be a challenge for some. If you can’t do 30 minutes a day, can you do 15? What about 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening? That means waking up 10-15 minutes early and putting in an extra 10 minutes when your kids go to bed. Instead of listing the reasons why you can’t workout, list the things you currently do instead of working out. Then, consider your priorities. I’m sure you can find a few extra minutes to invest in your health.
- What activities do you enjoy?If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, you’re not going to stick with it. So think about the activities that you already like to do and do them more often. Maybe you check out some hiking trails around town. Maybe you go to the tennis courts or buy a bicycle. If you like lifting, maybe you start lifting weights for 15 minutes a couple times a week. Do you like gardening? Plant some seeds and tend to them daily. Any activity is better than no activity. Supplement your workouts with the things you really enjoy.
Hopefully, after answering these questions you know what type of activities you need to perform (strength for muscle gain, cardio for endurance), the amount of time you have available to do those activities each day, and the type of activities that bring you the most enjoyment. Now all you have to do is get moving.
Eileen is a working mom who shares the household and childcare responsibilities with her husband. She works full time and has a nanny come to her home to care for her kids. She is out of the house from 7:45 am to 5:30 pm each day. She is not a morning person and can barely get herself out of bed in time to get to work, so for her, a morning workout is not an option. She ran track and cross country in high school, but because of a past knee injury, her body can no longer take the pounding. She’s discovered a new sense of freedom in biking. This is how Eileen schedules her workouts.
M: 20 minute bike ride after the kids go to bed
T: 15 minutes of bodyweight training after the kids go to bed
W: 20 minute bike ride after the kids go to bed.
F: 15 minutes of bodyweight training after work but before dinner. Date night!
S: One hour of actively playing with her kids in the yard, 60 minute bike ride with the family after lunch, and another hour of playing with her kids after dinner.
Eileen doesn’t do any extreme activity but she is consistent with her routine. She is confident and strong enough to complete what is demanded of her each day with no strain or pain.
Martha is a stay-at-home mom who is constantly on the go with her young children. She takes them to every available story time or class. When she’s home, she’s usually occupied with household chores and meal prep and keeping her kids happy and out of trouble. One of her children still naps but the other doesn’t. When it comes to bedtime, she is nothing if not persistent. Lights out at 7:30. Period. She needs a couple hours to decompress before falling into bed herself. This is how Martha schedules her workouts:
M: 30 minutes on the elliptical while the youngest naps
T: 20 minutes of strength training while the youngest naps
Th: 30 minutes on the elliptical while the youngest naps
F: 20 minutes of strength training while the youngest naps
S: Family outing! Everyone heads to the park to explore the trails and test the monkey bars.
Martha may be free to schedule her own time, but her calendar is still full. Still, she sets aside the time to workout while her toddler naps. She encourages her oldest to “exercise with mommy” during this time. On the weekends, she devotes most of her time to family activities so she makes sure that they are truly active for a couple of hours.
Susan is also a stay-at-home mom with two toddlers but she juggles that life with running an online business. To keep the profits coming, however minimal they may be, she needs to invest about 15-20 hours a week into her business. She gets up early to work a couple of hours while everyone else is sleeping and spends an hour every afternoon working on her business while her kids nap or play quietly in their rooms. It’s important to her that she takes care of all the household duties during the day so when her husband isn’t working they can spend time together as a family. She tries to workout when her kids are awake and playing, to give her more time to accomplish other things while her they nap, but sometimes she feels like attempting it is pointless because of the lack of focus. Still, she is passionate about health and fitness so she sticks to it. This is how Susan schedules her workouts.
M: 3 mile run with jogging stroller
T: 30 minute strength training
W: 3 mile run with jogging stroller
Th: 30 minute strength training
F: 3 mile run with jogging stroller
S: 30 minute strength training
The time of day Susan works out varies. She looks ahead to each day and plans her workout around whatever other tasks she has to accomplish. By managing her time like this, she is almost always able to get done the things that are most important and still have plenty of time to love on and play with her family.
The type of exercise you do, how long you do it, and how intense you go for can make a huge difference in your overall health and fitness levels. But in the long run, these things are not nearly as important as being consistent and staying in motion. If you walk 15 minutes a day every day for 10 years, I bet you’ll feel great when the next decade comes. If you run sporadically for 10 years, you’ll probably feel like you’re starting from nothing each time you take it back up. Find something you enjoy and fit it into your schedule during the times that makes the most sense for you. And stick to it.
FitTip: For long term success, it makes much more sense to complete the exercises that fit best with your lifestyle, and do it consistently, then try to change your lifestyle to fit what you think your workout should look like. Sometimes drastic changes are necessary, but most of the time they are temporary. Choose an activity or two you enjoy, set aside time every day to do it, and be consistent. This is the key to staying committed for life and aging well.